Clifford Beers is widely regarded as the pioneer of the “American mental hygiene movement.” This movement began when Beers learned he was suffering from bipolar disorder while working on Wall Street. This eventually lead him to attempt suicide and spend years in and out of hospitals. Beers’ firsthand experience with a lack of proper treatment for mental health in hospitals spurred his work in the field.
Beers published an autobiography in 1908 that served as a call to action for the nation. His book, A Mind That Found Itself, is actually available for free online. In his book, Beers talks about growing up as one of five children, all of whom suffered from mental illness. At the time he wrote the novel, our country did not acknowledge mental health in the same way that we do today. Yes, there is still a long ways to go with the destigmatization of mental health, but it is inspiring to see how far we have already come.
Beers began his crusade for better mental health treatment by founding the Connecticut Society for Mental Hygiene in 1908, along with physician William Welch and philosopher William James. The organization is still operating as a nonprofit today, providing mental health care in the state of Connecticut. The founding of this society kicked off a nationwide movement to establish similar organizations in other states.
The National Committee for Mental Hygiene, arguably Beers’ greatest achievement, was founded in 1909. The Committee “spearheaded legal reforms in several states, provided grants for research into the causes of psychiatric disorders, and funded training for medical students.” They also published two quarterly magazines,Mental Hygiene and Understanding the Child, that raised public awareness of mental health issues.
In 1930, the first International Congress for Mental Hygiene was organized by Beers and held in Washington, D.C. Representatives from 53 countries attended, and an original advertisement from the event can be found here. The conference turned into an international committee, which has now morphed into the World Federation for Mental Health. The federation began in conjunction with the United Nations, but eventually became a separate NGO. This means that the federation does not have to wait for the UN to make policy, nor does it have to agree with the UN’s endorsements. For example, in 1971, the World Federation for Mental Health was the first international organization to call attention to the practice of abusing psychiatry, often used by totalitarian regimes as a way to cover up human rights violations. The federation is now lead by a majority of psychiatrists and other health professionals, which some see as problematic since a strong patient voice is not represented.
Beers passed away in 1943 after committing himself to a hospital four years prior. Beers was a model of self-care — while doing his work for mental health, he realized the toll it was taking on his own life and sought help. His legacy lives on today, and it’s important to remember the roots and how far our country, and the world, has come in terms of mental health education and reform.